Since yesterday, the Yugoslav film Who sings there? by Slobodan Sijan, produced in 1980, is available in cinemas, distributed by Malavida. The film is part of the Cannes Classic selection of 2020.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT ?
Yugoslavia, April 5, 1941. An incredible fauna – an apprentice singer, a tuberculosis patient, a hunter, a notable, a veteran, two Gypsy musicians… – await the arrival of a rickety bus which is to take them to Belgrade. Led by a stupid driver and a totally irascible controller, the little troop embarks on a wacky journey welcoming in passing a newlywed couple. But nothing really goes as planned …
“A BIG TRAGEDY” – SLOBODAN SIJAN
Little is known about Yugoslav cinematography, especially since the country no longer exists. Some directors stand out thanks to distinctions in international festivals, such as Aleksandar Petrović (I even met happy gypsies), Živojin Pavlović (The Awakening of the rats), Dušan Makavejev (Wilhelm Reich or the Mysteries of the organism), Želimir Žilnik (Early work) – all from the “Black Wave”, the equivalent of the French New Wave.
In the 1980s, there was the Prague Group (they studied in this city): Goran Markovic (Tito and me), Goran Paskaljević (The Dog Who Loved Trains, Powder Barrel) and the most famous of ‘among all, Emir Kusturica, crowned with two Palmes d’Or for Papa is on a business trip and Underground. The latter readily quotes Who sings there? of Slobodan Sijan among his reference films.
Since yesterday, the distributor Malavida has made it possible to (re) discover the film since it was released in French cinemas in 1981.
Serbian Slobodan Sijan’s tragicomic road trip was released in 1980, the same year Marshal Tito died. The feature film takes place on the eve of Operation Punishment where Yugoslavia is invaded by troops of Adolf Hitler, aided by the independent (puppet) state of Croatia, led by the fascist Ustasha movement.
Groups of resistance fighters (mostly Serbs) will be set up to fight against the enemy. These historical reminders are important and allow a better understanding of Sijan’s feature film, which, sadly premonitory, anticipates the dismantling of the country in a bloody way in the 1990s, the result of a resentment of nearly 40 years with heavy human consequences.
Like the cult French comic films like La Grande vadrouille by Gérard Oury or Papy fait la resistance by Jean-Marie Poiré, Sijan reenacts the dark hours of Yugoslavia’s history, more than two decades after the end of the Second World War, because time allowed to digest and heal the conflict.
This comparison is no accident because Who sings there? is the equivalent in terms of popularity in the republics of the former Yugoslavia of The big mop with us. It is the most famous film, reprized and parodied in Serbian popular culture. A ballet was even staged from the film in 2004 at the National Theater in Belgrade. But, and this is the power of the film, Sijan brings to it the melancholy, characteristic of the Slavic peoples.
When, in France, comedies represent History by playing on misunderstandings and grimaces to only half-word what was most terrible in the war of 39-45 (the collaboration and the deportation), the Serbian director starts from a naturalistic comedy with sound gimmicks supported and grotesque representations of the characters to hold a speech which will be more and more clear against the Third Reich as the story unfolds.
Two elements are perfect examples of this. First, a chiaroscuro scene worthy of a Caravaggio painting in which the actor, Aleksandar Berček, gives his happy fool character, Mischko, a die-hard patriotic candor, uncomfortable for the viewer.
On the other hand, the director uses musical interludes sung by two gypsies to literally tell the story. These intermissions serve to chapter the feature film and retrace the socio-historical context of 1941 with clairvoyance and lucidity.
“If it were only a dream”, the heartbreaking leitmotif of the singer Rom runs through the film and emphasizes the difference between cinema and reality, the art of falsehood in the face of cold reality.
Discover Who sings there? 41 years after its creation makes it difficult not to see in it a deeply anti-militarist work. The director describes his film as a “grotesque tragedy“which is opposed to the” good-natured “comedies made in France mentioned above.
During the Second World War, the Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were victims of a genocide whose resentment resurfaced in the 1990s, when the balance of power was reversed and was in favor of the Serbs.
A posteriori, Sijan’s film shows that History is a terrible boomerang. The death of Tito – who held the country’s unity with an iron fist – heralds its slow disintegration and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. History is only returning to its starting point: the fratricidal war between the Croats and Serbs, between the Ustashas of the 1940s and the Chetniks of the 1990s.
But in the absurdity of wars, it is civilians and “scapegoat” groups that always pay the heaviest price, in any camp.